The campaign of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich hasn’t been defined by message discipline, organizational prowess or really any of the markers that typically define a well-run presidential bid.
It’s a campaign that couldn’t even manage to get on the ballot in Virginia or file a full delegate slate in New Hampshire. And it’s the same campaign that has been rife with organizational issues from the outset.
Yet faced with the single greatest challenge of his campaign to date—mitigating the fallout from an ABC News interview with his ex-wife—Gingrich performed remarkably well Thursday, turning in perhaps his best performance yet at the final debate before Saturday’s South Carolina primary. The question now is whether it's enough to sustain Gingrich's South Carolina surge and whether he's able to convince Republicans he's steady enough to take on President Obama.
“They’ve probably handled this as well as a situation like this can be handled,” Republican strategist Dan Schnur says of the Gingrich campaign. Schnur was communications director for Sen. John McCain during his first presidential bid in 2000.
The initial decision to not respond directly on the campaign trail Thursday to the allegations made by Gingrich’s second wife was a smart one, according to Schnur, and it set Gingrich up perfectly for the moment that defined Thursday night’s GOP debate. Asked by CNN’s John King if he wanted to respond to his ex-wife’s allegation that Gingrich asked her for an “open marriage,” the former Speaker did what he does best—he turned indignant and launched a blistering attack on King and the mainstream media that brought the debate crowd to its feet.
“I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of the news media makes it harder to govern this country,” said Gingrich. “I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
Gingrich went on to call the allegation false and he clearly owned the first part of Thursday’s debate.
GOP strategist Ed Rollins characterized it this way: “A one punch knockout of John King and his inappropriate question that won two standing ovations and the debate in less than two minutes.”
Gingrich played it perfectly Thursday, argues Republican consultant Ron Bonjean, by first blaming the media and then injecting “conspiracy about the timing” of the interview. “He also surrounded himself with his daughters and family friends,” says Bonjean. “Instead of running away from the crisis, he ran towards it with a machine gun firing away."
Gingrich clearly won points with the debate audience Thursday and his campaign avoided a crisis meltdown, but the nagging fear about Gingrich among many Republicans is that he’s simply too unpredictable and has too much baggage to get through a general election contest with Obama. Former Sen. Rick Santorum put that anxiety into words Thursday when he said he didn't want a nominee who will leave the party "worrying about what he's going to say next." Santorum also scoffed at Gingrich's leadership style, saying he offered "an idea a minute" during his time as speaker.
“Newt has known for a while that if his candidacy took off he would have to confront some of these serious questions about his character,” says Republican strategist Terry Holt. It’s something Gingrich has worked into the narrative of his campaign from the start. “He’s talked about how he’s changed, asked for forgiveness for the mistakes that he’s made in his life,” says Holt. “He was setting up the conversation for this very moment, which was inevitable.”
Still, Holt doubts Gingrich can survive long term. “In the near term he can put up a vigorous defense, but I think the whole combination of things really limit his electability,” he argues.
The final days on the South Carolina campaign trail will tell the tale, says Schnur, who notes that Gingrich will have to maintain the same discipline he showed Thursday with questions about his former marriage.
“If ever there was a candidate who could weather a storm like this," Schnur says, "and I’m not necessarily saying he will—but if there ever was a candidate to do it, it’s Newt Gingrich at this moment."
-Sean J. Miller contributed reporting.